The story was so unexpected, so staggering in terms of scope and deception, that it’s natural most of the focus has been on the dirt.
There are stories that John Coppolella routinely circumvented international signing bonus limitations by “bundling” bonuses, with money effectively being funneled from a lesser prospect to a more valuable one through a third party … that he so blatantly disregarded tampering rules he phoned an agent 2½ months before his player hit the market … that he arranged for housing for top Venezuelan prospect Kevin Maitan near Miami before the Braves nabbed him as a way of shielding him from competitors. … that he negotiated a verbal agreement with a 14-year-old in the Dominican Republic, two years before he was eligible.
Those are your Braves today: coming off their third consecutive 90-loss season and with a pile of alleged infractions, just short of a Louisville basketball stripper party.
That's a lot to unwrap. The ripple effect of Coppolella’s underhanded dealings may extend far beyond his forced resignation as general manager. There’s the potential of Major League Baseball declaring some prospects free agents and imposing further restrictions on the Braves, a once-proud franchise that competed at the highest level, won with class and served as a blueprint for other organizations.
But this is when the attention needs to shift away from the dirt. Here's the bigger question: What has happened to the Braves’ front office and how did they allow this to happen?
John Schuerholz, the Hall of Fame executive, understandably didn’t like the job Frank Wren did as his successor. So he, in concert with chairman Terry McGuirk, fired Wren and lured John Hart out of retirement. The mission: rebuild the player-development system, the roster and dump the bad contracts Wren had accrued.
Schuerholz and Hart were more overseers at this stage of their lives and career, so they brought in Coppolella as the young, hard-working grunt guy to do most of the work. It was their sincere hope that Coppolella, who had strengths in areas of analytics and personnel evaluation but was inexperienced as an executive and weak in the area of people skills, would grow into the GM’s job.
He didn’t. He didn’t come close.
In fact, over the past year, Coppolella had becoming more autocratic, listening less to people around him and growing increasingly obsessed to the point of, well, feeling compelled to cheat. He became like an addict. He lost perspective, clarity. The job clouded his thinking.
Coppolella did a fine job rebuilding the minor league system. The Braves’ system is widely considered to be stuffed with more young talent than most, if not all, organizations. But that’s only one piece of the job. Coppolella failed in so many others. The Braves went 72-90 this season largely because he believed signing older, expensive stop-gap starters -- Bartolo Colon, Jaime Garcia and R.A. Dickey, at a total salary of $32.5 million -- would make the team competitive in 2017 and provide a bridge to the young starters on 2018. That plan failed spectacularly this season, and there’s no more certainty about the readiness of the young arms now than there was last winter.
There’s no need for a general manager to be “friends” with competitors. But Coppolella failed to build working relationships with other GMs, possibly limiting trade options. He failed to acknowledge mistakes until long past they were obvious, most notably being the Hector Olivera/Alex Wood deal with Los Angeles.
More than a year later, he tried to cover that by saying Matt Kemp-for-Olivera was a makeup call. No, it wasn’t. Kemp added some punch to the lineup, at least until familiar injury and weight issues came up. But the Braves are on the hook for $54 million of Kemp’s salary from 2017 to 2019. They would’ve owed Olivera only $28.5 million from 2017 to 2020. It would've been better just to walk away from him after the Olivera's arrest for domestic assault.
Perhaps most troubling of all, I heard an increasing amount of feedback over the past few months about declining morale in the team offices, strikingly similar to Wren’s final days. Coppolella turned on anybody who didn’t agree with his positions on players or roster strategy. He took on an almost bunker mentality. He became overly sensitive to criticism.
I can certainly attest to the latter: Coppolella hadn’t spoken to me for several months, believing I was overly critical of his plan. In fact, I agreed with the rebuild. I just had a problem with the front office’s lack of transparency and honesty about the rebuild, questioned specific moves – the Olivera and Andrelton Simmons trades, the firing of pitching coach Roger McDowell , the old-guy signings – and believed Coppolella and Hart never took ownership for the losses.
Instead, they blamed the manager and coaches.
The Braves have lacked true leadership. They didn’t have it with Coppolella. They also haven’t had it north of him: not from McGuirk, not from Schuerholz, not from Hart, certainly not from anybody in corporate headquarters in Colorado, where the focus is on stock price.
When something gets this ugly, it always starts at the top.
This has been a franchise that for too long has been driven by revenue streams and not on-field product. Imagine if top executives were as driven to improve the product as they were to get public financing for a stadium deal or a spring training home.
The Braves’ brand has taken a beating. They need to get it right this time.
Hire a general manager who has an ounce of humility, knows how to manage people and can see the big picture. Dayton Moore from Kansas City seems like the perfect and obvious choice, but there must be others out there.
Let the new general manager make the decision on manager Brian Snitker.
Let the new GM decide on whether it’s time to acquire a No. 1 starting pitcher -- by spending money, dealing prospects or both.
Let the new GM realize that it takes more than a spreadsheet to build a team – it takes chemistry and personalities and clubhouse leadership, which the Braves have lacked.
Let the new GM ask the question: Why aren’t we bringing in Tom Glavine or John Smoltz to help tutor some of these young pitchers?
Let the new GM evaluate the major league roster and realize that the best years of Freddie Freeman are being wasted.
Get it right this time.
Because for as much as Coppolella did a nice job building the feeder system, that’s only part of the job. He got the rest wrong. And now somebody has a mess to clean up.
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